Tales from the Crypt: Greenwich Village as seen through its burial sites
Burial spaces serve a wide variety of purposes: religious, political, socioeconomic. For example, a graveyard might demarcate the boundary of a church or private property, while the kind of interment that was undertaken (burial, cremation, mausoleum) might give insight into the roles and statuses the deceased maintained in their lifetime. It also gives us insight into the kinds of communities that inhabited the area during different times in history. With the recent accidental discovery of that burial vault by Washington Square Park, we here at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation would like to take some time to discuss how different burial sites are reflective of the history of community migration in and around the Village and the factors that lead to the establishment of these different sites in the area.
Washington Square Park
Washington Square Park, one of the most well-known and well-travelled places in the Village, also happens to be one of the largest grave sites in the area. The aforementioned discovered burial vault dates from the early 19th century, and is most likely associated with the Cedar Street and Pearl Street Presbyterian Churches, which had established cemeteries in the area around 1826. While it may at first seem strange that these cemeteries belong to two churches bearing names associated with Lower Manhattan, it is quite reflective of movement trends in the borough during that time. Around 1822, many wealthier residents from Lower Manhattan started moving north into the Greenwich Village area in order to escape a Yellow Fever epidemic. As a result, this began a demographic shift in the makeup of the village, which until that time been a mix of poorer white and free black and slave communities.
This leads to the park before 1822. In the late 18th/early 19th century, the area that became Washington Square Park was nothing more than a potter field, or a mass grave site for the indigent, poor, criminals, and victims of epidemic. The site, a former farm, was purchased in 1797 by the city for this purpose and remained as such until around 1827 when Washington Square was legally declared a public space. The site was also used as an execution ground, with the last execution, that of a slave, taking place in 1819, with burial taking place in the same field. It was renamed the Washington Military Parade Ground in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of independence, continuing its transformation from a burial ground to bucolic green space. Yet, what of the bodies that were buried there? According to historians and archaeologists the bodies still remain in the ground. Michelle Nevius and James Nevius, who wrote the guide book Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City, explain, “While estimates vary, it seems likely that over 20,000 people were buried in the land…. The bulk of the bodies were never disinterred, which means that they remain to this day under the grass and pavement of Washington Square.”
New York Marble Cemetery
In 1852, the Common Council of New York City passed a law banning burial within city limits, fearing that buried remains were to blame for yellow fever epidemics. Yet 21 years earlier, in 1831 the New York Marble Cemetery, located at 41 ½ Second Avenue, was incorporated and became the first non-sectarian burial place in the city. Most of the interments took place between 1830 and 1870, though the last occurred in 1937; in total 2,080 interments took place within the cemetery, with each burial taking place in 156 below-ground vaults made of solid white Tuckahoe marble. There are no gravestones in the cemetery, though the names of the original owners are inscribed on plaques on the surrounding interior walls and their descendants may be buried there as well. Given the type of burial architecture, time period, and views on public health during the time period of major operation, it is assumed that the burial practices exhibited within the Marble Cemetery were most likely influenced by the fear of disease.
Second Cemetery of Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel
Just west of 6th Avenue on 11th Street is the Second Cemetery of Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel, the second cemetery installment of the Congregation Shearith Israel, a congregation of Sephardic Jewish immigrants and the oldest Jewish congregation in North America. The First Cemetery of Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel- also known as Chatham Square Cemetery– was established in 1683 at 55-57 St. James Place in Lower Manhattan. 122 years later in 1805, when the cemetery had started to exceed their allotment and push against development in Lower Manhattan, the Second Cemetery plot was purchased and established on a much larger plot that had extended into what is now 11th Street. This plot operated until 1829; during that time the establishment of the Manhattan grid system began its process of cutting 11th Street, which once again ran aground with the bodies in that cemetery space. A Third Cemetery space was then purchased on 98-110 West 21st Street, where those displaced bodies were re-interred. The third plot was in operation up until 1851, right before the law was passed banning burials within city limits. Further burials post-1852 from this and its future surviving congregations took place in Glendale, Queens. A section from a 1928 New Yorker article discussing the cemeteries sums up the spaces’ histories while also highlighting their importance and reverence within their community:
“There remain two cemeteries to visit, built by descendants of the first Portuguese Jews. One of these is the tiny triangle with twenty headstones familiar to Greenwich Villagers, on Eleventh Street, east of Sixth Avenue. The cemetery of those who died by plagues, particularly the dread yellow fever of 1798, it once covered many acres. The second, on Twenty-first Street, west of Sixth, has perhaps a hundred and fifty tombstones. Burials were made here as late as 1851, although it was against the law then, and several of the bereaved families had to pay a fine of two hundred and fifty dollars. The Portuguese Jews formed the Congregation Shearith Israel whose present congregation – their synagogue is at 99 Central Park West – has repeatedly rejected offers of hundreds of thousands for the Twenty-first Street site. Once a department store wanted to arch a building over the cemetery, leaving it undisturbed, but that plan was rejected, too.” — (The New Yorker “Where Time Has Stopped,” 25 February 1928).
Spring Street Presbyterian Church
Although not in Greenwich Village, the Spring Street Presbyterian Church was a bit of an anomaly in terms of its views, which is also reflected in their burials. The church was founded in 1809 after purchasing the plot of land on what is now the southeast corner of Spring and Varick Streets, and the building itself was completed in 1811. What makes this church unique for its time period was its strong abolitionist stance. The church itself abutted against the predominately free-black neighborhood of Little Africa, and as early as 1822, the church had a multiracial Sunday school and admitted African-Americans to full communion. Unfortunately their stance on slavery and racial tolerance was met with backlash and the church was burned down twice in the 1830’s as a result.
In 2006, the site where the church had stood was in the process of being cleared to make way for the Trump SoHo condo hotel. Yet, during this process, bodies were uncovered; the workers on the site had found the former church’s cemetery. The bones that were uncovered, along with associated funerary objects, indicated that the interred were of mixed European and African ancestry.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the different types of burial practices in Greenwich Village and the surrounding neighborhoods, but a few conclusions can be drawn:
- Space played a large role in the establishment of these different burial sites. The potter’s field in Washington Square Park was established as a result of the need for more burial space, while the Second Cemetery was incorporated as the First had outgrown its boundaries in Lower Manhattan. Eventually, in 1852, a law was passed barring burial within Manhattan, shifting burial sites out of the city into the outer boroughs, due partly for the need for space, and partly for the next point, disease.
- Probably the most key point in the establishment of these sites, the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1822, spurred migration northward from Lower Manhattan into Greenwich Village. The burial vaults discovered around Washington Square Park reflects this trend, as they have associations with Cedar and Pearl Streets, both located in Lower Manhattan. The marble cemetery, with their deep, marble vaults, also shows how views on disease (the belief that it was spread through dead bodies) impacted the types of burials (ones that would make sure the bodies of the deceased are kept away from the public).
- With the exception of the Marble Cemetery, most of the formal burial sites in the Village were established by churches and religious institutions. The establishment of formal burial sites around Washington Square is reflective of the gentrification that started to happen in the area around the Yellow Fever epidemic, and the shift to a public space from a potter’s field.
- The move from public to formal burial sites also reflects changes in demographics. As Yellow Fever pushed more people north into the Village, the area began to urbanize and gentrify. Mentalities also were changing around that time, as seen in the Spring Street Presbyterian Church cemetery, as during the 1820’s New York was on the cusp of full emancipation of slaves.